Neighborhood Shakespeare

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Tickets go on sale tomorrow for the Folger’s fall King Lear, with England’s Globe — the Globe — doing the show, sure to be something.  I have no idea whether I’ll be able to get tickets or even if tickets will be affordable, but I just want to express my appreciation for the Folger. We’ve seen Richard III (pre-show pic above) and Two Gentlemen of Verona there this year, both without breaking the bank,  and the two still pop to mind regularly.

With Richard III, how often do you see a theater rip apart almost its entire room and rebuild it for one production? In the round with bodies tumbling through panels in the floor and actors leaning on your railing, spit flying, spoils you. With Two Gentlemen, we see a young Shakespeare still working out his lines, plots and jokes. But — he’s still Shakespeare. The right cast finds the funny, smoothes the plot and chooses the right lines to land .

How are these prizes just down the street? I’m happy to be a neighbor.

What authors teach beyond their pages

So… I’ve been remiss in blogging in recent weeks due to the computer issues, but I’ve been remiss in recent months in blogging about some cool readings. Time to fix. (Still working on computer stuff, though.)

1. Gary Shteyngart.

Saw him speak this spring at the Folger and he was very funny. I had forgotten how artists were allowed to be so funny. He did the voices of his characters. He made lots of jokes about his writing technique. He referenced Web amusement, and when I searches, his funny trailer for Super Sad True Love Story turned up. We fall in love with idea of artist as tortured master, Picasso and Brian Wilson (if now with broadband Internet), and we begin to separate a sense of humor from success. It was nice to receive a reminder the two can be meshed without issue.

2. Adam Ross.

He was at the Folger with Shteyngart. He was serious — friendly, had his fun moments, but mostly serious. He was wound tightly on stage, focused on explaining his book the right way. But then the interviewer asked about bookstores in his city, Nashville. The last one died, and Ann Patchett had taken it upon herself to open a replacement. Ross was happy about the new one but angry about what the town had lost. He nearly came to ranting. Yet, knowing where he was, he kept some dignified reserve. I had forgotten artists could be passionate about the world around them and not just the world in their pages.

3. Giada De Laurentiis.

Sometimes you need that one last, clear look to end a crush. If you’ve read this blog for a long time, you know I’ve been a fan of Giada. Even when she said Georgetown was just outside of Washington, I’d never given up on her. Until when I saw her at Sixth and I, and she was an automaton. Responding to crowd questions positively but guardedly and with good words for her corporate tie-ins. Caveat: The interviewer was a print editor, uncomfortable on stage and in directly addressing an odd subject. But a machine is a machine is a machine is a lesson.

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4. Jennifer Egan.

Openness. She answered questions for almost as long as she read, taking each one at length and being disappointed when organizers cut her off. And consider where she was! At the main Arlington library, in front of an audience of several hundred, none who had paid anything to get in. They all just wanted to be there, and so did she. To see one of the country’s greatest authors in such a place was a testament of Egan, to libraries and to everyone who loved them. She wanted to be there and so did we, and such friendly expectations are rare, so rare.

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5. Colin Powell.

A few weeks ago at Sixth and I. There were some protesters outside. Inside, the crowd seemed mixed, half fans, half withholding judgment as the NPR interviewer talked to him. There was long discussion of his boyhood, and the educational goals he pushes for now, and the Iraq war. When he answered the war questions, those in the pews were attentive and gave little response. There were moments when cheers broke out but they were few. Were they politely negative? No. Were they skeptical? No. Were they human? Yes. Here was a man answering seemingly as best he could and an audience that knew it did not have to answer to anyone. However your politics ran, you could grasp the person speaking for himself and going to bed with the consequences.

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Shakespeare! The horse goes all the way down

Was fortunate to hear new Folger Library chief Michael Witmore give a great talk Wednesday night, “Data-Mining Shakespeare.” Among other research, he’s collaborated with fellow profs in using the text-analysis tool Docuscope for illuminating word-by-word scans of the Bard’s plays.

What did the scans turn up? Insights into genre. Software was able to group the plays relatively into comedies, tragedies and histories, all by looking at words and phrases. Not the expected ones either, mind you, not just “I love you,” “I die,” “Hey, you get to be the king now.” On the far end of the comedy scale was The Merry Wives of Windsor because it scored highly for use of the first person and interior thought. This word choice made sense for a plot about two people trying to get together.

With the histories, you see more descriptive writing and comparatively less of the comedy qualities. With the tragedies, they fall somewhat in the middle but with exceptions. Witmore cited Othello as dastardly that way. Othello‘s word choices score almost as high as The Merry Wives for comedy qualities. But the effect is Shakespeare leading you into a trap, lulling you into a peaceful spirit at the most basic — practically innate — language levels, even as plot suggests otherwise, then shanking you.

Witmore ended with a metaphor of Eadweard Muybridge’s early series of photos of a horse gallop. One of the first times film captured motion, Muybridge proved there was a point in the gallop where the horse had no hooves touching the ground. Before the shots, we couldn’t see that moment, too distracted by the horse’s greater movement, the obvious dramatic attraction of the legs and the head, and even if we tried, too slow with our own motion-capture to keep up. But a repeated moment of flying through the air did occur, part of the horse’s great propulsion.

The same happened with Shakespeare. While the acting and plot stole our attention, as soliloquies held our emotions, the playwright worked the language all the way down, every word taking us toward his ends.

On a different measure, Witmore did well at explaining how technology and traditional text analysis can complement each other, alternating in unlocking new avenues for examination. A bunch of us from NPR Digital Media went: two coders, two librarians, myself from product dev. After the talk, we each appeared to have a good deal of mulling going on. I also enjoyed seeing Witmore at full speed. He struck me as interesting yet somewhat nervous when I saw him interview Robert Pinsky at the Folger last month. But Wednesday night he was a natural lecturer and promising for the city’s culture in how he mixed arts, tech and emotion.

Robert Pinsky at the Folger, distinctly

First hearing him read some thirteen years ago, at a youth conference in Wyoming, the thing about Robert Pinsky’s poetry that shook me up was the way he spoke. He enunciated like no one I’d ever heard. He hit each syllable not only clearly but with dynamics. The syllables took the manner of punctuation, propelling you forward or sitting you still.

How they combined into words and phrases, construction in pursuit of meaning, put what I understood about poetry to that point in a fresh light. Line breaks, rhyme, meter, onomatopoeia, symbols, styles, they were simply supports. What mattered was what you wanted to say.

Of course, I needed more years to realize what had grabbed me. But I was grateful when I slowly caught on and glad this week when Pinsky came and read at the Folger. Salzburg pal Jess and I caught him there Tuesday. (Photo above was hers. We also ate Good Stuff burgers and discussed her new roommate, Abe Lincoln.) Pinsky read for an hour or so and then took questions. He talked with excitement about decades of collaborations with musicians and technologists. He enunciated with drive, even reading the poem I’d heard him read thirteen years ago.

What he said at his Yale reading later this week: “A poem is a work of art made out of the sounds of a language. It is not a song. It is sounds of speech approaching the conditions of a song.” He spoke similarly on writing at an event with Springsteen a couple years ago. “For me, it’s an awful lot like noodling at the piano, playing with colors, except it’s syllables. I write with my voice. My voice box is my writing instrument.”

At the Folger, he read another one I was hoping we’d hear, one just called “Book.” Part captured a more recent hope and fear of mine:

Enchanted wood. Glyphs and characters between boards.
The reader’s dread of finishing a book, that loss of a world,

And also the reader’s dread of beginning a book, becoming
Hostage to a new world, to some spirit or spirits unknown.

Cyrano in America, fitting in quite well

If you haven’t been yet, go see Cyrano at the Folger. There are just a couple weeks left in the D.C. run, and I promise you a good night out.

(Weird: I wrote this post last evening with plans to publish it at some point. Then LivingSocial made Cyrano a deal today. So, let’s publish. I don’t work for LivingSocial at all, but I do want you to see this play.)

The new adaption and translation work amazingly well together. If the Roxanne and Monsterpiece Theater versions were any proof, Edmond Rostand created a story born for refittings and evolution. But for this staging to follow those two in modern Americana and still seem fresh, that challenge was a near 1-on-100 fight. It was fun to see it happen.

Translator Michael Hollinger met the goal he stated in the program:

In conceiving this new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with Aaron Posner, I’ve sought to produce an American translation that is true to the beating heart of the play, with a poetic sensibility that lets language soar when it should soar, but which is also lean, precise, spare, immediate, and actor-friendly at all times. The play comprises a huge range of tones — comic, tragic, melodramatic, farcical, antic, elegiac — and I’ve tried to honor all of them, though the particular way each appears in our version may differ from the original. (After all, what’s funny or poignant or scary in fin de siècle Paris may not have the same effect on Americans in 2011.)

Lines easily slid between tight translation and modern American.

I could have listened to the play, not seeing a thing, and still enjoyed it. The theater being the Folger, such circumstances were a bit close.

Friend Jen and I grabbed dinner down the street at Sonoma (a pizza with an egg on top), and we sped off to the theater. Goldstar tickets had come cheap. The seats turned out to be in the back corner of the theater, but as the evening got moving, they actually felt good. While pillars and lighting blocked parts of the stage from where we sat, the experience was very… groundling. I heard what I couldn’t see, knew other parts of the room had their blind spots and didn’t mind at all.

Of the cast, no performances let me down. But the way Rostand runs through plot, it’s hard for anyone to upstage Cyrano, the man of the hour. Fortunately, Eric Hisson’s Cyrano is a solid romantic badass.